“Oslo, Maine” by Marcia Butler; Central Avenue Publishing, Delta, British Columbia, 2021; 224 pages, paperback, $16.99.

The fictional town of Oslo in Marcia Butler’s novel “Oslo, Maine” is located somewhere around South Paris and Bridgton. We know this because young Pierre Roy keeps dated GPS-location records of events to help him to remember them. To remember the events even happened, that is, because as the story opens, his short-term memory has somehow short-circuited.

One of Pierre’s records states: “Mom cried / 44.08 – 70.84 / 5-20-19”. Mom is Celine Roy, the fairly intelligent, painkiller-addicted wife of Claude Roy. Claude is a millworker and all-around rural-type male chauvinist pig who’s disgusted by his son’s dislike of guns and love of reading, and who has a lucrative little side operation involving illegal trapping. Claude resents Celine’s doting support for Pierre’s unmanly interests. Another thing he resents is Pierre’s violin teacher, Sandra.

Sandra and her husband, Jim, came to Maine years earlier from California to escape the pressures of trying to make a living as classical musicians. Jim, while nominally still playing, has basically checked out in favor of inventing chores and projects for himself around the house instead of pursuing his undistinguished abilities as a cellist. Also, his purported bad back limits his possibilities. Sandra still loves playing her violin and pieces together a meager living teaching lessons and gigging.

Meanwhile, a separate thread of the story is told from the point of view of a pregnant moose who stumbles into a snare. An interesting detail we learn amid the moose’s sufferings is that she has a sense of an afterlife.

We never, as far as I can tell, learn whether any of the human characters has any such sensibility. They are caught up in their own mundane problems, which at first seem almost comical, but as the story unfolds come to seem more tangled, and darker.

The mystery in the tent (so to speak) is what happened to Pierre’s memory. The Roy family at first seems to be coping in a sitcom-like way (although they seem to lack the family and social networks characteristic of most working-class Franco-American families hereabouts). But this sense of coping comes less from events and more from the tone of the narrative, which might best be described as light and breezy.

For example, early on, Claude’s exasperation with his son’s unmanly predilections is sad but almost funny. At one point he’s chewing over in his mind Pierre’s violin lessons and Sandra’s intrusive airs: “Claude feared what was next. Macrame? Potting? Sock darning? Pierre would probably be brilliant at that stuff too.” The story’s narrative frequently dips into the characters’ inner thoughts; Claude’s extensive self-reflections, in particular, sort of belie his disposition to visit unthinking emotional and sometimes physical brutality on his wife, son and mill underlings, not to mention animals.

The tone is light but the situation is heavy. Celine’s drug addiction is revealed to be debilitating. Sandra and Jim have deeply tangled frictions. Car crashes, a brutal beating, illicit sex, horrors perpetrated on the moose all build toward the thought, late in the story, by a grandmother with cancer that “these days it seemed that all of life was about wreckage. And death.” This pretty much sums up what we know about life in Oslo. While the narrative skates glibly along, these people’s lives are not funny at all, or even ironic. They’re wretched.

The saving grace for Pierre and Sandra is music. Each experiences it as a refuge. And in fact the most lucid passages in the book are those covering, in evocative emotional and scenic detail, Sandra’s enjoyment of teaching music, the connections between teacher and student, and the epiphanic joys of music itself.

The event that led to Pierre’s memory loss is cleared up in a timely, taut narrative way. And the overall conclusion to the various strands of the story may come as a surprise to some readers caught up in the unhappiness of the main characters, in this peculiarly well-written book.

Marcia Butler’s ties to Maine include her summer gigs as an oboist for the Sebago-Long Lake Music Festival, based in Harrison, during the 1990s and 2000s. She’s performed with high-profile orchestras and musicians, has worked as a filmmaker and designer, and lives now in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Her other books include the novel “Pickle’s Progress” and a memoir, “The Skin Above My Knee.” “Oslo, Maine” is available through her website  and online book sellers.

Off Radar takes note of poetry and books with Maine connections the first and third Thursdays of each month. Dana Wilde is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. Contact him at [email protected].

 

 

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